Monday, November 22

Innovation, version 3

Those of us with a background in technology have long been familiar with the conundrum of business-to-IT alignment.  We often find ourselves in the middle of tussles between
  • Business people who don’t (and don’t wish to) understand the complexities of IT, considering it something of an ivory tower, and
  • IT people, many of whom value technical exactitude and purity above actual return on investment
This divide will be instantly recognisable to millions of knowledge workers around the world, but after numerous prominent failures of alignment, it’s gradually being overcome via business partner models, enterprise architecture, better collaboration, and the continuous encroach of technology into all of our private lives.  The latter is particularly significant, with many businesses struggling to keep up with the rich, social experiences that their customers and employees can get for free at sites like Google, Facebook and Twitter.
So with the business/IT divide a well-established phenomena, it’s amazing just how few texts on “innovation” fail to discuss the way in which the divide manifests itself in that domain.  Here's my interpretation:
In most industries, business people will think first-and-foremost of Market-Pull innovation—unusual or creative ways to respond to established market needs.  (For example, the automotive airbag was a response to the demand for better crash safely in cars.)
However, many technologists will recognise only Technology-Push innovation—the research and development of inventions, in the hope that a problem will subsequently offer itself up.  (One example is the invention of MP3 encoding, which has subsequently largely displaced the compact disc.)
Coming to recognise these two basic flavours can help organisations surmount many of the semantic debates about the word “innovation”.  And sorting out the language can be a critical stepping-stone to identifying gaps in innovation strategy, with most organisations opting for some composite of the two types once they recognise that both exist!
I was quite pleased when I first recognised these two flavours, and felt very comfortable when I learnt to work with them.
So it was a mixed blessing when I started meeting Italians …
Marzia Aricò is the designer working for the Hot Spots Movement.  She has a background in both design and innovation, and is an advocate of Design-Driven innovation—a way of adapting creative design processes to produce radical innovation which are still based on perceived market demand.  I’ll be watching with interest to see how this third way takes-off, and in the meantime you can read her description of it here.

Wednesday, November 17

Artistic Licence

In the last few days I've spoken to people from several organisations who suffer from an interesting obstacle to creative thinking:  They don't think they're allowed!  It's not the corporate way.

This obstacle is caused by more than just the doctrine that analytical thinking is all-important; rather it's part of a corporate upbringing which places no value on creativity, but values time highly.  In this kind of environment, any avant garde modes of thought will be seen as unproductive wastes of time, and are unlikely to get a fair trial.

People in this kind of situation (and lots of us have been there!) need to unlearn patterns of behaviour that have formerly served us well.  In many industries, and especially in technical or mechanical work, we earn our spurs early on via a dogged commitment to logic and analysis, at the expense of other more open-minded approaches.

But this kind of constraint really isn't good for anyone.  It bores and weakens individuals, and it commoditises the output of the corporation.

So we must learn to engage our powers of thought again, and I find a growing movement of important thinkers throwing themselves at this kind of agenda.  For example:

1.  Lynda Gratton's book "Hot Spots" (see bibliography) points out that ambiguous questions are much more likely to ignite hot spots of energised, innovative behaviour.  We won't stimultate creativity with closed, narrow or prescriptive challenges, which tend instead to result in "dehydrated conversations".

2.  Chris Guillebeau’s latest article (see links) is a powerful tract on being yourself, and resisting the corporate forces of homogenisation. 

3.  Bob Anderson's document on leadership tells us that "most of us would be genuinely shocked if we learnt how much of our behaviour with others comes from a place of fear in us" and "we speak up at meetings or remain quiet in front of our colleagues and bosses, hoping to look brilliant or avoid looking foolish".

Mindless adherence to best practice doesn't just harm creativityit can also harm our analytical thought!  We all know that three-year olds ask "why?" ad infinitum.   But do any of us do that at work?  Not often, I'd guess.  Instead people tend to worry about looking stupid, or decide their curiousity has had sufficient free-rein when they think they spot a familiar pattern.

So I suggest we each develop our own principles for work, and always try to be true to them.  If you believe in creative thinking then I hope you'll develop a principle to support that commitment.

Thursday, November 11

Opportunity for all

I've been reading a very interesting book in the last few days.  The author is very familiar to me, but this is not in his usual style.

Edward de Bono's "Opportunities" presents a formula for embedding the search for new and better products and operations into the normal day jobs of senior managers, in such a way that this doesn't just become a "nice-to-have" aspect of their roles.

What a good idea?  Typical of him, really.

Far from being hypothethical, we feel that we're reading a thorough and carefully-considered account of methods which de Bono has actually seen in practice.  (I'm looking for empirical evidence now, and would appreciate any feedback.)

There's an unexpectedly large amount of detail in the book, so I'll provide only a taster here:

  • Traditional roles don't often reward the pursuit of new opportunities, especially in the public sector.
  • There's often no-one who "owns" that pursuit either.  Everyone expects someone else to do it.
  • Despite this, the search for new opportunities should be taken-up at all levels to allow organisations to remain competitive.
  • So we need to encourage this important activity, even though there's usually something more urgent to keep us busy.
  • It can figure in everyone's job description.
  • There should be an "Opportunity Audit" process, whereby an "Opportunity Manager" supports managers in producing annual "Opportunity Reports".
  • These reports oblige managers to seek opportunities in their areas, and in others' area--but more importantly to secure sponsorship to take them up.

All of this seems eminently sensible, and I struggle to find fault with the fundamentals.    So why don't we hear more about it?

I can only speculate that:
  1. At board-level, the search for opportunities seems so unavoidable that it's assumed everyone already does it, ... or 
  2. A fairly rigid framework like de Bono's seems antithetical to the kind of spontaneous, creative thinking we usually associate with market exploration, ... or
  3. No-one has yet shown the foresight to set-aside sufficient budget for such a scheme, despite the significant likelyhood of sharp and swift returns.
Perhaps I'm wrong.  Perhaps this has already been tried unsuccessfully by a number of companies.  If you know the answer, please get in touch.

Monday, November 8

Favourite ways to provoke people

Creativity in an artistic environment is one thing; creative thinking in the context of business activity is quite another. 

Central to the act of creative thinking in business is the act of provocation.  I'm convinced by the argument that the educational institutions of the western world have eroded our creativity, replacing it with patterns for analytic problem solving which in time become our only instincts.

I'm sure you'll readily recollect an education in which you were taught that "Peking" was the capital of China.  But do you ever recall being offered any alternative perspectives?
1.  If you're chinese, the capital is "Beijing"
2.  If you're a grammar buff, the capital is "C"
3.  If you're in finance, the capital will be "yuan", or "renminbi", or "kuai", or "jiao" (various names for China's currency)

Once you've arrived at these alternatives, it's pretty easy to back-track to the original question.  And the trick of provocation helps you reach those paths-less-trodden. 

We started to discuss this subject in a previous post, but now I'd like to offer-up a few basic methods to help you provoke the mind away from it's normal path.  You'll be able to get a long way with just a simple expression of four common methods, derived from one of the many books on the bibliography page:

First of all work out precisely what you want to think about, and write it down as your "focus".  It could be a problem, an opportunity, or just a subject area which you feel warrants further exploration.

Then apply one or more of the following provocations, in any order ...

Re-focus and re-state
Examine the top three causes and top three effects of your focus, and consider re-focusing on one of those if it might yield broader results.  Experiment with putting your focus into different words, use synonyms and similar phrases to re-express the focus so as to open-up other lines of thinking.

Use analogies
Consider if your focus has any "parallel worlds" (the best example I've spotted is roll-on deodorant, apparently invented by considering the roller-ball pen!)  Also try putting yourself in the shoes of a personal hero, and try to imagine how he or she would proceed.

Try to find an attribute of your situation which is fixed (e.g. ice forms water when it melts) ... then consider what would happen otherwise, and how that could in fact be prevented.  Consider the use of a "magic agent" which can overcome your most immediate obstacles ... then work out if such an agent could be introduced.  Consider the positive applications of apparently negative features of your situation, perhaps from the perspectives of others.

Pick a random word or phrase, inject it mercilessly into your focus, and see what emerges.  (I carry 300 random words around with me for just these purposes, and they've never failed me yet.  I only wish I had more.)

Various authors have written extensively on how these techniques can be elaborated into more sophisticated workshop exercises, to be used for collective creative brainstorming.  But very little attention is given to the power of using them alone in a quiet room on a rainy Thursday afternoon.  It actually works very well, if and only if you believe it will work well.  So when you're next feeling upbeat about creative thinking, please give it a try.  I'd love to hear how you get on.